#Insights: Are brands going to lead the next wave of activism?

In the past few decades, mainstream advertising was progressively dominated almost exclusively by one theme: sex. Sexual undertones have been employed in the selling of everything from automobiles to apparel and even kitchen appliances. This approach has helped marketers create shock and curiosity, and helped them build aspirational values around their products. While sex is still widely used in advertising, increasingly, it isn’t what it once used to be: it’s no longer the guaranteed crowd-puller, so to speak. Mere shock value for the sake of it doesn’t win consumers over anymore. Consumers today, on account of increased awareness, have become more conscientious – they respond better to advertising messages that align with their personal beliefs and opinions. Brands who take a stance about pressing issues are viewed in a better light than those who don’t.  Sex doesn’t sell anymore; activism does. Brands are gradually but surely awakening to this; the number of companies being vocal about issues they care about has been increasing, and over the past few years, brands have covered a wide range of issues in their socially responsible campaigns, including gender equality, human rights, animal abuse, environmental degradation, etc. In the wake of the recent ‘Muslim Ban’ in the US, for instance, major brands like Nike, Starbucks and Kickstarter issued statements challenging it. No longer is being silent or politically correct an option; consumers expect the brands they’re loyal to, to be opinionated and assertive.

Two well-known brands did just that over the past week, making bold statements in different parts of the world.


Proctor & Gamble’s Vicks launched their new campaign, #TouchOfCare, in one of their largest markets, India. In the cinematic ad by Publicis Singapore, Gayatri, a young girl, narrates the story of her childhood, revolving around the camaraderie she shares with her mother, Gauri Sawant. As the ad progresses, one is made to understand that Gauri is Gayatri’s adoptive mother, who took her in when her birth mother passed away from an illness. The narrative is light-hearted and warm, until it is revealed that Gauri is a transgender woman; Gayatri recounts the trials her mother faced in bringing her up as a single transgender woman. The ad begins with Gayatri’s narration of how her mother wants her to be a doctor, and ends with the two lines that contain the essence of the entire campaign:

“My Civics book says that everyone is entitled to basic rights. Then why is my mom denied them? That’s why I’m not going to be a doctor, I will be a lawyer; for my mom.”

Image: Vicks India















This is the true story of Gauri Sawant, a transgender activist from India. Gauri plays herself in the film, and her story is one that’s all too common in India; transgender individuals who often adopt the children of their peers who succumb to HIV-related causes. The LGBTQ community in India is widely discriminated against, and this campaign comes at a time when there is a pressing need for a discussion about the obstacles that make it extremely difficult for the community to be participating members of society. As a brand that has stood for traditional family ties for over 50 years in India, addressing a crucial issue like this, one that typically goes against what is largely accepted in Indian society, is a bold and commendable move on Vicks’ part. About the campaign, Proctor & Gamble says,

“We want consumers to recognise that everyone has a right to family. Wherever there is care, that bond is a family.”

The campaign has been well-received in India, and internationally.


Over 4,000 miles from India, in Australia, Airbnb launched their own groundbreaking campaign, titled Until We All Belong. Released as a series of videos featuring Australian citizens, the campaign urges people in Australia to stand up for marriage equality, by pledging to wear an ‘acceptance ring’ until gay marriage is legalized in the country. The matte black ring, crafted by world-renowned designer Marc Newson, differs from traditional rings in that it forms an incomplete circle, with a gap towards the end, symbolic of the acceptance gap with respect to gay marriage. Airbnb asks the Australian public to stand together to close this gap. Until We All Belong was launched in partnership with The Equality Campaign, a not-for-profit that aims to bridge the gap between people and their government representatives, by bringing them together to have a conversation about this very important issue. Airbnb has long been an ally of the LGBTQ community, and this campaign is a natural progression for the home-sharing service.

Image: Airbnb


Airbnb’s CEO and Head of Community, Brian Chesky, said,

“Openness and belonging are at the heart of Airbnb – it’s at the core of what we do every day. This is an opportunity for people to show their support for marriage equality – not just those within the LGBTQI+ community, but for anyone to make their support for a brother, sister, parent, friend, or loved one known.”

The ring, priced at $3.50, covers only the cost of postage and handling, with Airbnb making no profit from the sales. With this campaign, Airbnb joins companies like Google, eBay and Qantas in standing up for marriage equality in Australia.

The key is in getting the activism right

The campaigns of both Vicks and Airbnb come at the right time, right place, and with the right tonality, but jumping onto the activism bandwagon may not be for every brand. While it is important for brands to talk about, and even initiate, discussions pertaining to issues affecting humanity, a misinformed, hasty or vague campaign may come across as flippant and inconsiderate – opportunistic, even. Pepsi’s recent ad with supermodel Kendall Jenner received a lot of flak on the web, with many accusing the content of being tone-deaf, and trivialising the seriousness of the Black Lives Matter movement, leading the brand to pull the ad within a day of its launch, with an apology.

Activism shouldn’t be the flavor of the season – being socially responsible is a long-term commitment, and brands wanting to participate in or start a dialogue about social issues need to ensure their message isn’t disingenuous, and the execution appropriate and consistent with their core values and identity. With the power brands have to affect real change, it becomes especially important for them to exercise this power with caution, respect, and most important of all, honesty.

Activism is great; relevant activism, even better.


Melanie Joe

Melanie Joe

Melanie is Consultant - Research and Insights at MSLGROUP, based in Mumbai. She tracks inspiring initiatives in the digital space for People's Insights.

5 Responses to “#Insights: Are brands going to lead the next wave of activism?”

  1. @parveezmodak

    Are Brands Going to Lead the Next Wave of Activism? https://t.co/JaWMBQ9K0Y

  2. MSLGROUP (@msl_group)

    Activism shouldn’t be the flavor of the season – being socially responsible is a long-term commitment for brands. https://t.co/Lzv78xmyX5

  3. MSLGROUP (@msl_group)

    Sex doesn’t sell anymore; activism does. @melanie_joe assesses how brands are gradually awakening to this notion. https://t.co/Lzv78xmyX5

  4. MSLGROUP (@msl_group)

    Sex doesn’t sell anymore; activism does. Find out how brands are gradually awakening to this notion. https://t.co/Lzv78xmyX5

  5. MSLGROUP (@msl_group)

    Sex doesn’t sell anymore; activism does. @melanie_joe assesses how brands are gradually awakening to this notion. https://t.co/hXwIO8bop9


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